NBA Preview / Lakers have plenty of worthy foes to knock off its crown
Another eight-month odyssey, the 64th NBA season, kicks off tomorrow night. The season begins with no clear cut favorite for the title and will culminate when the much-heralded 2010 free agent class hits the market in July, possibly determining the league's power structure for the next decade.
Israeli Omri Casspi will finally end the quest for the Israeli version of basketball's Holy Grail when the Sacramento Kings open their season Wednesday night. But aside from hearing about Casspi, local fans will surely hear more than they need and or ever wanted to know about Kings' basketball in the upcoming months.
The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers looked less like conquering heroes and more like battered survivors en route to last year's crown. Despite returning the same basic lineup (aside from Ron Artest instead of Trevor Ariza) they are far from shoe-ins to repeat.
There are several worthy contenders. Among them are the Boston Celtics, who captured the 2007-2008 title. Kevin Garnett's return to health and the addition of Rasheed Wallace make the Celts instant favorites to capture the NBA's Eastern Division. If Garnett and the rest of Boston's veteran cast of stars remain healthy, Boston will probably still be playing come championship time in June.
The Celtics' biggest challenge should come from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs seemed poised to sweep the field during last year's playoffs before being surprised by the Orlando Magic. But now that LeBron James has established himself as the league's best player, it seems only a matter of time before the Cavs win a championship.
The off-season additions of Shaquille O'Neal and Maccabi Tel Aviv immortal Anthony Parker bolsters Cleveland's game. Though Shaq is only a shadow of his former self, he is still capable of giving his new team 15-20 quality minutes a night and his big game experience and leadership might prove enough to put the Cavs over the top this time.
After being overlooked last season, no one should be selling the Eastern Division champion Magic short this year. The Magic are a powerful, well-coached crew, led by superstar center Dwight Howard. Although they lost one of their key players, Hedo Turkoglu, through free agency, the addition of Vince Carter puts them in good position to remain an upper echelon team.
Best in the West
It's difficult to identify a serious challenger to the Lakers in the West but the Portland Trailblazers and San Antonio Spurs are two teams that bear watching.
The Blazers are an up-and-coming team with a wealth of young talent. Foremost is second year center Greg Oden who's been billed as a future superstar and has shown signs of coming into his own during preseason games. Portland is definitely a team of the future but when that is depends squarely on Oden's development.
There has been a tendency to think that age has caught up with San Antonio Spurs, but it would be a big mistake to overlook the four-time NBA champions. The Spurs have reloaded in the off season, adding frontcourt stars Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and rookie steal DeJuan Blair to their superstar core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli and could threaten L.A. if their stars remain healthy.
Other teams, like the New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzles and Minnesota Timberwolves, among others, are clearing money and salary cap space to build for the future. That future will come immediately after the season, when a historic free agent group of James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire and others hit the open market.
The ultimate jackpot will be signing James and the Knicks will do everything to convince him that the bright lights of Broadway are preferable to staying in the Mistake on the Lake.
The competition for James has even taken on an international flavor with a boost to his overseas marketing appeal as the lure. The Cavs have recently taken on a Chinese consortium as a minority owner and the New Jersey Nets are due to be sold to a Russian billionaire who also hopes to lure James in.